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How to Socialize a Newly Weaned Parrot

By: Mattie Sue Athan

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There's a very real temptation to believe that a baby parrot - a perfect little interactive bundle of shiny feathers - will remain perfect in every way. Some will. But parrots learn many behaviors that can be either beneficial or destructive.

Here's how to de-emphasize destructive behaviors and reinforce positive behaviors so you can raise a happy, well-socialized bird.

Bringing Home Your Baby Bird

Don't bring your baby parrot home until he's fully weaned. Baby parrots are totally dependent on their parents for many weeks, sometimes many months, for every physical and emotional need. The hand-feeding of baby parrots by humans is an extremely difficult process and one that's best left to professionals.

A premium baby parrot is ideally transferred to its new home within a few months after the bird is completely weaned. This is generally considered to be the best time to begin behavior training; it's a window of opportunity to teach your young parrot both human-interactive behaviors and independence.

Although much of your parrot's behavior will demonstrate a desire to please, the bird will also be especially fond of self-rewarding behaviors-things that are fun simply for the doing. Left alone, many - possibly most - companion parrots will develop bad habits. Especially in long-lived species, the development of only one difficult-to-live-with behavior every year or two can produce an obnoxious bird within a decade

Training

An effective relationship with your parrot must begin with mutual trust. The baby parrot usually comes with these elements already established in its behavior. Cooperative games between you and the bird such as step-ups and towel-peek-a-boos should be repeatedly stimulated, enacted and reinforced to maintain tameness as the bird matures.

Step ups involve a human prompt for the bird to step onto a hand or perch on command. The bird learns what's expected by practicing stepping from hand to hand and from hand-held-perch to hand or perch on command.

Practice in safe, neutral territory and be sure that your hand is approaching from below toward your bird's belly, rather than from the front. With regular practice, a strong verbal command to "step-up" is then always greeted with a little lifted foot. Actually, once your parrot learns to associate happy interaction with the words "step-up," he'll probably begin using those words when he wants to be picked up. Indeed, many parrots' first word is "step-up."
        
You can also prevent the development of stress reactions to toweling by cuddling, snuggling and playing "peek-a-bird" in a towel. Your parrot will need annual veterinary examinations and grooming at least twice a year and so must learn to enjoy, appreciate or at least tolerate towels. Using a towel in your games will improve trust and condition your new baby bird to cope with being restrained during these potentially stressful interactions.

Many fun-active and passive-interactive games can be played with your bird and a towel. Whether it's playing "peek-a-boo" from behind a towel or "find-the-toy" (under the towel), the more interactive silliness you can engage in now, the more easily these happy interactions can be stimulated later. All this cooperation patterning when your bird is one, two, three and five years old is intended to prevent the development of uncooperative or violent behavior later, when he reaches sexual maturity.

Each human expecting to interact with the bird should engage in some cooperative routine with it most days for a minute or so, preferably in a variety of ways. Reward any behavior you want to see again so that it will be repeated. Be sure not to accidentally reinforce behaviors you don't want to see again.

Fostering Independence

A successful companion parrot must also have a strong sense of self and a sense of independence. Here are some elements that you should foster in your parrot:

  • An understanding of the passage of time. Any creature needs to know that time's passing and things won't always be the way they are right now. Your parrot should be able to tell when it's daytime and when it's night. At least a few things should happen at the same time every day. Humans should establish patterns of going away and coming back so that the bird will never feel abandoned.

  • Acceptance of change. You must condition your bird to tolerate changes in the environment - by making regular changes - so that he won't develop territorial behaviors based on control of a static environment.

  • Opportunities to make successful decisions. In the wild, a bird's brain is constantly stimulated by decision making. In captivity, a bird may have no opportunity to make even the tiniest choice. Be sure to design elements into the environment that allow the bird to make decisions: "Shall I play on this perch or that one?" or "Shall I play with this toy or the one over there?"

    How to Prevent Biting

    Biting is annoying and can even be dangerous. Though you might consider punishing a bird that bites, it's not the right thing to do. Punishment can cause physical and emotional harm.
            
    The very best response to a bird nipping painlessly on your flesh is no response at all. Some birds perceive almost any response as reinforcement for the behavior.

    What if it's more than just a "nip"? If your bird bites your hand, move your hand toward the bird. He will have to let go as your hand approaches his body. If your bird bites another part of your body, remove him immediately. Use a towel if necessary.

    If a previously well-behaved bird is starting to learn to bite, you need to offer your bird distractions to prevent reinforcement of biting patterns and to return to cooperative behavior. If distractions start becoming necessary, then your bird must be re-patterned. Practicing step-ups or other enjoyable routines in unfamiliar territory can accomplish this.

    Good Distractions

  • The Wobble. This distraction device can only be used sparingly. If it's being used frequently, then it isn't working and should be discontinued. It's best employed just before the nip but may also be used just as the nip occurs. (It doesn't work at all if it happens after the nip.)

    Here's how it works: When your nipping bird is sitting on a hand or hand-held perch, gently wobble or slightly turn your hand so he must momentarily pay attention in order to regain balance. Maintain eye contact and remind your bird either to "Be a good bird" or to "Be careful."

  • Good Hand/Bad Hand. The most common time for a nip or bite of a hand offered for step-ups is when your bird is being removed from a familiar perch, the inside or top of the cage. This behavior can usually be defeated with improved technique and more frequent patterning in unfamiliar territory.

    Maintain eye contact and offer your hand to be stepped on, being careful to always approach from below your bird. To distract the bird from biting, present an unfamiliar object just out of reach of his beak (with one hand) just as you are bringing your other hand for the step up. Give the "step up" command followed by "Be a good (or pretty) bird." Your bird is more likely to try to be good than if you say "No!" which can be especially confusing if you're prompting for a step-up and saying "no" at the same time.

    Eye contact is especially important here. Your bird will often maintain eye contact rather than bite. If your bird is distracted by something, he'll try to regain eye contact rather than take the time to bite. Even if your bird bites, the unfamiliar object will probably receive the bite. Be sure that the distraction device isn't frightening to a shy parrot. The distraction object must be big enough to be effective - yet small enough not to frighten your bird – and absolutely non-toxic.

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